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Applying the CEDAW Convention for the recognition of women's health rights.

In conceptual terms, reproductive and sexual rights mean the right to bodily integrity, personhood and autonomy (see Definitions on page 11). In practical terms what the above rights entail is women's right to decide freely with regard to matters pertaining to reproduction and sexuality and the right to have the means to implement these decisions. While the former right is ideological and falls in the area of civil and political rights, the latter lies within the ambit of socioeconomic rights and is programmatic in nature. It includes access to information and services.

Resistance to these Rights and Existing Contradictions (1)

Historically, there has been a great deal of resistance to the concept of reproductive and sexual rights of women even in the human rights discourse. It is only since the UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 that the debate on reproductive and sexual rights has come out in the open. The resistance has many dimensions and arises from: 1) The concept of gender neutrality embodied in the law, which is blind to sex-based differences among human beings. The principle has been "treat likes alike". Differences of class, caste, gender etc. have precluded the claims to equality; 2) A fear of giving women control over their reproductive and sexual capacities. In Beijing, the fear that giving women control in these areas would lead to promiscuous behaviour on the part of women and increase in abortions, lesbianism and the breakdown of the "moral order" was evident. This fear is also linked to a patriarchal need to establish and have control over patrilineal bloodlines; 3) The imperatives of the development agenda, which sees a linear link between population growth and development. Development practitioners address this "problem" through fertility control programmes. The emphasis on fertility control has in many developing countries taken precedence over women's need for basic health services and even concern for maternal mortality.

Several contradictions emerge in the attitudes towards reproductive and sexual rights. On the one hand, the State does not hesitate to be coercive in controlling women's fertility--on the other hand, it refuses to recognise certain violations of women's autonomy, stating that it is a private matter between women and men. The fact that it is virtually impossible to gain recognition of marital rape as a crime in many of our countries is witness to this. This leaves women to negotiate their rights with men on a person-to-person basis in the private sphere from positions of weakness because of the lack of economic and social independence.

Furthermore, some States, while claiming that they should not interfere in the intimate arena of sexuality, have in the same breath imposed norms of morality in that same arena by sanctioning heterosexuality and penalising homosexuality, and criminalizing abortion.

Effects of the Non-Recognition of these Rights on Women

The non-recognition of women's right to bodily integrity and sexual autonomy is at its extreme effect, life-threatening. According to WHO statistics for 1995, globally an estimated 515,000 women die due to avoidable and pregnancy-related causes (2) and around 70,000 die due to unsafe abortions (3) each year. Frequent pregnancy increases the risk of maternal morbidity. It also prohibits development for women and denies the woman an identity of her own.

The lack of women's sexual autonomy leads to exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS, as well as to various forms of sexual abuse and cruelty to women. At the same time, it is both cause and effect of the ideology that men have the right to sexual services from women. This has far-reaching effects and is one of the dimensions within the problem of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Finally, it destroys the self-esteem of women and denies them the dignity of being human. Clearly, the denial of women's reproductive and sexual rights has resulted in a denial of their human rights which are guaranteed in many international human rights laws.

Women's Rights as Human Rights and the CEDAW Convention

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Convention) is significant as it focuses on equality and the elimination of discrimination against women. It recognises that women's inequality is socially created (article 1). The CEDAW Convention also demands that rights for women must be granted through the legislative process--providing an avenue for drawing accountability for the guarantee of these rights (articles 2, 3 and 4). It discards the distinction between the private and public spheres, by recognising violations of women in the private sphere i.e. the home, as violations of women's human rights (article 16). Article 5 of the CEDAW Convention that demands for the need to eliminate cultural, traditional and religious values that reinforce stereotypes and gendered hierarchies, can be a powerful tool for women in their advocacy for reproductive and sexual rights. Human rights treaties are powerful instruments that establish universal standards and impose legal obligations on governments.

Recommendations and Conclusion

The existence of a positive legal framework for women's rights cannot automatically confer rights on women. But what it does is that it legitimises women's claims for rights and women can be transformed from being passive beneficiaries to active claimants. It creates the space for women's agency. This means that women must learn to interpret and apply its principles of non-discrimination and equality to a wide range of conditions and specific concerns. We must also be aware that other human rights treaties can be used alongside the CEDAW Convention to address specific areas. Discrimination against women must be eliminated so that women's position socially, politically and economically is strengthened both at the private and public levels. Only then can women exercise their reproductive and sexual rights. We need to show how differentials in status and power, and the lack of human rights result in measurable effects on women's poor health. Above all, we need to ensure that all our interventions accomplish the goal of facilitating the agency of women and building their capacity to negotiate change at the personal and public levels.

* Endnotes

(1) The discussion on reproductive rights is taken from an IWRAW Asia Pacific article for the Regional Dialogue between Women's Rights Activists and Human Rights Organizations, organised by IWRAW Asia Pacific, in Manila, in 1996.

(2) AbouZhar, Carla; Wardlaw, Tessa. 2001. Maternal Mortality in 1995: Estimates Developed by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA. Geneva: WHO. p.2.

(3) World Health Organisation. 1999. "Abortion in the developing world". Press Release WHO/28. 17 May 1999. Retrieved from WHO website at <www.who.int/inf-pr-1999/ en/pr99-28.html> on 9th July 2002.

* By Shanthi Dairiam, Executive Director, International Women's Rights Action Watch (IWRAW) Asia Pacific, 2nd Floor, Block F, Anjung Felda, Jalan Maktab, 54000 Kuala Lumpur. Tel: (603) 26913292; Fax: (603) 26984203. E-mail: <iwraw@po.jaring.my>; Website: <www.iwrawap.org/>.
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Title Annotation:Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
Author:Dairiam, Shanthi
Publication:Arrows For Change
Date:May 1, 2002
Words:1130
Next Article:Challenging the abortion law in Nepal. (Law).
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